★★★ out of ★★★★★ Plucky young teenage boys suspect a local cop of being a serial killer in this 80’s throwback thriller. Sound familiar?
Directed by François Simard, Yoann-Karl Whisell, and Anouk Whissell
We are spoiled. We have recently gotten Scariest Things and It as retro kid-based Spielberg/King influenced productions. Those were two impressive and iconic pieces of nostalgia-soaked popular art, and now stepping into the (somewhat off to the side) spotlight, comes the feature Summer of ’84.
Did it succeed at tapping into that same vein of PacMan VHS tinged memory bank? In a word: Almost. The producers certainly ran through all the tropes of their source material.
☑ Suburban idyllic setting with split-level homes built in the 60’s.
☑ Clubhouse with walkie talkies.
☑ Kids have gone mysteriously missing.
☑ Dirt Bikes. Seriously, was I the only kid growing up in the 80’s who rode a ten speed?
☑ Synthesizer-heavy soundtrack. (Thankfully devoid of 80’s pop hits.)
☑ Reagan/Bush ’84 lawn signs to ensure we have the time stamp.
☑The Conspiracy theorist and clubhouse leader, Davey (Graham Verchere)
☑The Pretty object of desire who just so happens to be cool, Nikki (Tiera Skovbye)
□ The Steely black kid with common sense… Nope! Not in this film.
Well… we were close.
The Summer of ’84 introduces us to the cast with the narration that “Even serial killers live next to somebody.” and “The suburbs are where the craziest shit happens.” We meet Davie who will be our resident conspiracy theorist and paperboy on a dirt bike, in the fictional town of Ipswitch, Oregon (Yay, Oregon? Actual shoot location: Vancouver). He helps out his neighbor, Mr. Mackey, a local cop, move some furniture into the basement, where he suspects some odd things in the house.
As new disappearances of kids from around the region continue to make news, Davey confides to his mates in their tree-clubhouse that he suspects that Mr. Mackey is hiding something, and more to the point… that he’s been abducting kids. The rest of the boys think this is crazy talk, and quickly turn to more important stuff, like girls and sex.
But Davey doesn’t give up. He continues to find odd things about Mr. Mackey, and eventually convinces the crew to snoop around his neighbor’s house for clues. The bulk of the second act is the boys coordinating and plotting their espionage and shenanigans. The B-story is a budding relationship between Davey and his former babysitter, the formidably pretty neighbor, Nikki. It’s sweet, and they play that story line just right. (learning well from Stranger Things and It as how to treat the sole female team member… though she isn’t as integral as either Eleven or Beverly.)
Given how true to the formula is for the movie, I was prepared to make it a ★★1/2 film, but then the ending came. This is not the ending I was expecting, and it earns its horror chops at the finish line. Much of the rest of the film was a coming of age tale, and a bit of a Scooby Doo/Hardy Boys summer adventure, and then the ending hits hard. So stick with it until the end!
Summer of ’84 is piloted by the the three headedteam of Simard and the brother-sister duo of Whisell and Whisell. This is their second trifecta tour together, having first created the cult-favorite Turbo Kid. I submit that these creators know how to set up and tell a good story, but they need some refinement with their scripts.
If you are going to be compared to Stranger Things, you’ll need to know how young teenage boys talk, and this movie seemed close, but not quite. The acting chops of the cast is also a half step to one full step behind It, but probably on par with Goonies, and certainly well above Disney Channel kids laugh-track fare, but I expected more. I really liked Caleb Emery though, in his endearing role. I would have liked to see more of him with his mom. Rich Sommer is excellent as officer Wanye Mackey, who by all exterior appearances seems on the up-and-up, with enough of a hint of menace that you can get where Davey get his suspicions. Sommer, you will probably recognize if you watch the fun women’s wrestling comedy GLOW.
There were some good moments, where all the players shined, and I suspect where things got weak was when some of the clubhouse banter just felt very scripted. It was like they weren’t accustomed to real potty-mouth humor in real life, and their timing was off. Props to the prop master for getting some good period looking sets going… this could have been straight from Phantasm, though I would have liked this film to have had the Ti West treatment, where the actual film looked like it was period, as well as the sets and clothing. That’s just a personal preference, but for a movie so steeped in the nostalgia of the era, that would have sold it one more step.
This is a good, entertaining film, and it really delivers a great coda. But it is exceedingly familiar. It’s sort of horror comfort food. It’s not going to challenge you or make you stress out.
Summer of ’84 is not rated, but is on the edge of PG-13 to R, thanks to a violent third act. This movie is streaming as part of the Shudder service through Amazon Prime. It is also available on Vudu.